UID and Cellphone Numbers – a benign start?

It makes sense. The database with half a billion genuine subscribers to mobile phones in India can be used as a starting point for allocating the Unique Identity numbers for a billion Indians. We already know that Nandan Nilekani doesn’t currently plan to include personal details in the National Database. But it looks like your cellphone number is going to be part of it.

While it seems like a good start, one wonders if the Unique ID is properly targeted here. According to all sources, it’s the poor and underprivileged who need it most. Maybe such people will not have cell phones (700 million of them). In which case, we’re starting out by giving UIDs to those whom it’s not meant to benefit. But it’s still a start and we have to start somewhere. Since each person’s biometrics will be associated, this should remove the problems with duplicate IDs. But it’s going to mean a huge task of gathering data.

Image Credit: Vinay Joshi/Reuters

Indian National ID set to use Mobile Subscriber Base

Indian National ID set to use Mobile Subscriber Base

Of course since the government isn’t going to blindly copy the telephone subscriber data, how many people are going to willingly verify their numbers for the UID scheme and hand over their fingerprints? Will there be any incentive for them? In the long run, I’m sure that this project can cover almost all the country. What we’re still waiting to see is whether or not the UID will be used for other sinister purposes – even though Nilekani says that there’s no “card” as such and that it’ll be voluntary (initially at least).

India’s large and undisciplined population might be a strength here. After all, for people to keep, maintain and carry a UID requires discipline. You can’t force people to remember to carry it with them. And it’s not like a driving license where if you don’t have it, you’re putting people in danger cause you may not be qualified to drive. After all, there’s nothing wrong in going for an impromptu stroll is there?

I’m watching the situation with – as Blackadder put it in Season 4 – “with a due sense of dread.” To keep upto date with the Unique Identity Card issue in India, subscribe to its RSS feed.

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  1. Do I understand this right? A cellphone number tied to an Identity card?! And when I move from cell phone tower to cell phone tower and the government tracks my movements throughout the country (or for that matter, the world). No, thank you, George Orwell.

    Yes, I am ignorant of laws in India, but is there no due process? Maybe I'll get two cellphones. One tied to my UID to leave at home and the other one to carry with me.


    • In reply to the plasticgraduate

      From what I understand, the cellphone database will be a starting point. They plan to use biometrics to ensure there are no duplicates. Once a person signs up, they won't have anything more to do with the cell number. Apparently the UID will have only 4 pieces of data .

      I agree that surveillance is one of the most important reasons not to have an integrated database of people due to the temptation. But tracking of cellphones can take place even now without a National ID number – cell phone companies all over the world can track people if they so wish am I right?


  2. hahaha-liked the picture.."Try Identifying Me Mr.Nilekani"


  3. Fingerprints is the most troubling. Imagine everytime you applied for a cell phone they took your fingerprints. Now, the government cannot only track your whereabouts but has a huge database of fingerprints. And, as you point out in your Oct. 4 post, perhaps caste data as well. Of course the UID will assign you some sort of number, right? Will you need that number to go to public/private school, register your marriage, receive services at a health clinic, apply for other services public & private?

    That is why I am forced to live completely off the grid. Just think of the Social Security Number here in the US. While they were first used primarily for tax and federal benefit purposes, now everything from driver's licenses, gym memberships, cell phone applications to K12 school enrollment demands it. Try getting a cell phone without it.


  4. @the plasticgraduate
    That's exactly what I'm afraid of. Even if it's not legally necessary to have a UID, the government and other private players can make your life almost impossible to live without it – as you mention (great links by the way).

    I have some hope however. India is fundamentally different in that a lot of people are unsophisticated. Asking each and every one of them to keep a number with them (when they may even be illiterate) will not work I feel. Plus people move around without any warning. You can just go to another city, rent an apartment without any ID (as long as you have cash). But yeah, a cell phone is an issue.

    I wonder where this will go – hopefully the people of India will be of such a nature that such a scheme won't work.


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